Embracing a Classroom Culture of Error

We know that not all students will ‘get it’ straight away. We invest CPD time focusing on not just how to increase the likelihood that students will understand our exposition, but also developing our skills at diagnosing what students have and have not understood. (Deliberately avoiding the word ‘learnt’ here as often we are talking about the ‘performance’ stage before this.)

There is increasing discussion about how schools are engaging students with how they learn. Not solely through metacognitive teaching approaches, or woven into classroom teaching, but also through assembly programmes or tutor time curriculums. (Katie Holmes @MissHolmes_PE, AFL PE, has been working with Kelly Tatlock @socwarrior, Assistant Headteacher, on our approach to this – see more here.)

For me, alongside sharing with students the importance of attention, the limitations of working memory, the importance of retrieval practice, more effective revision strategies… I also think we need to consider how overt we are about embracing a culture of error in our classrooms. We know there will be misconceptions, there will be struggle – we invest our time in seeking it out, trying to “see what’s in your heads” (Claire Stoneman). Do students also know this?

How can we build a culture where, not only do we as teachers seek out these misunderstandings, but our students are more willing, in fact, it is the norm, for them to share when they don’t understand or have got something wrong?

This is no easy feat. School leaders consider the importance of psychological safety* and their colleagues, supporting staff to reflect upon not only where things have gone wrong, but to also pre-empt – where might things go wrong? More than this, psychological safety builds culture, not only enabling stronger self-reflection, but also stronger teams, where feedback can support the professional learning of others. Are we tapping into this same ‘safe learning space’ in our teaching? More than that, are we seeking to actively build it?

For this blog, I want to zoom in on a few ideas we might utilise in the classroom in order to build this culture. Do we (not necessarily literally in these words) say to students, “if I never taught you anything that was challenging, we’d still be doing 2×2!” How can we help students see that struggle is normal, error is normal, and use this notion to develop learning? How can we build a classroom which embraces a culture of error?

*To read more about the theories behind psychological safety, Sam Crome @Mr_Crome has tweeted, blogged and presented a great deal about this. In addition, Amy Edmondson’s book ‘The Fearless Organization’ is a must read. I also recommend ‘The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team’ by Patrick Lencioni, ‘Culture Code’ by Daniel Coyle, and ‘Belonging’ by Owen Eastwood.

Establish what might go wrong

Embracing a culture of error does not give us carte blanche to prepare or implement poorly. It includes careful planning and foresight, alongside ongoing evaluation.

When teaching, we share our steps to, or ingredients of, success readily. And, we take time to consider common misconceptions in our curriculum planning. We weave this into our exposition. Questions to consider:

  • How do we make these misconceptions or pitfalls super-tangible for students?
  • How can we enable learners to refer back to these common misconceptions as they are undertaking practice? Do we remove transience?
  • How do we encourage our learners to think hard about these misconceptions and pitfalls?

Here is an example akin to what might happen in a Maths lesson, looking at calculating the area and perimeter of parts of a circle…

“Everyone think… looking back through this ‘I do’, where would it be easy for me to make a mistake? 30 seconds, everyone needs at least 2 answers ready.”

*wait time – Students know that “Everyone think” means silently*

“Everyone listening, ready to respond. I’ll start with Jack.”

“You might get the two formula mixed up.”

“Thank you, Jack. Everyone, be sure to refer to the formula on the board to help you – they are written here. What else, Eva?”

“You need to be careful whether the question gives you the radius or diameter.”

“Thanks, Eva; let’s add that to our list.”

*writes on the board*

“What else, Penelope?”

“You need to remember to use the correct units.”

“Tell me more about that…”

“Well, not just in terms of cm or m, but also in terms of whether it is a length or an area, so cm or cm2.”

“Wonderful, thank you.”

*writes on the board*

And so on…

Notice here how a climate is built where students are expected to know what previous students have said and not repeat answers. Were this to happen, this would be addressed, but that’s a different blog. (Thanks to Adam Boxer for this.) Students who only came up with one answer need to be ready with a different response should their initial thought be said. This encourages deeper thinking than just allowing students to say, “they said what I was going to say”. Prompting or returning to the student after additional wait time could be used as needed.

By getting our students to not only think about how to be successful, but how to avoid error – not just telling them, not just including it in our exposition, but getting them to think hard about it we reduce the likelihood that these errors will occur, whilst also creating a climate where we say, “these errors are normal, they are common, and it’s OK if they happen to you – but let’s do our best to avoid them.”

Students check whether it has gone wrong

Because we have made our errors “super-tangible”, students are now able to utilise this list after they have completed their work to check back through – prior to us giving any feedback.

“You now have 3 minutes to check back through your work, using the common misconceptions we have identified. Can you spot any errors? Be ready to share.”

The phrase, “Be ready to share”, is key. We are not hiding our mistakes, we are not afraid of our errors, we are embracing them as something completely normal that is part of the learning process.

“Everyone (*start with this word to emphasise the normalcy and expectation*), raise your hand if you spotted an error in your work…”

*Hands go up*

“Keep your hand up if you spotted an error that is not on our list? What else can we watch out for?”

This strategy can also be applied during teacher modelling. It is not uncommon for teachers to make deliberate (or non-deliberate) errors in their work. Inviting students to tell us where we have made a mistake, where we can improve our work, where we have fallen foul of common errors, misconceptions or opportunities for stronger work, supports the creation of the norms we are looking to build.

“Ooh, I think I’ve made a mistake here. Everyone think, what have I done right and where is my error? Use the ideas we shared earlier to help you…

*Wait time*

What do you think, Poppy?”

“You’ve forgotten to add on the 2 radiuses.”

“What have I done successfully, Bob?”

“Well, you’ve worked out the length of the circumference, and then calculated what three-quarters of it is. But, like Poppy said, you forgot to add the two radiuses.”

“Put your hand up if you had something different (*deliberately asking this first before affirming the response to Poppy, or by asking who else thought the same*). Exactly Poppy, Bob, thank you.”

So, we’ve got students to think hard about errors or misconceptions before and during their independent practice, what about afterwards?

Students share where it has gone wrong

My favourite and perhaps most simple strategy for embracing a classroom culture of error is students overtly sharing what they have done wrong as opposed to what they have done right. Of course, we do plenty of the latter too. We have students saying “yes!” when they get it all right, or they nail on an explanation. But we also want students to celebrate overcoming hurdles – and so first, they need to admit that there was a hurdle in the first place.

Again, I will continue with the Maths example, but the premise works elsewhere.

“OK, time to go through the answers. Tick if you got it right, correct if you got it wrong, circle if you don’t know why. (*Again, a deliberate choice of words in the marking routine*)

1. 15cm
2. 30 cm
3. 44.5m2
4. 7.29mm
5. 100m2

Put your hand up if you got question 1 wrong *no hands go up*… question 2 wrong *no hands go up*… question 3 wrong *2 hands shoot up*

Thank you, Jack, Ava. Do you know where you went wrong, Jack?”

“Yes, my answer is twice as big, I used the diameter in my calculation instead of the radius.”

“Well-spotted Jack. Ava?”

“I did the same as Jack.”

“Thanks for sharing, both of you.”

The above is an example where it was only a couple of students, and a quick interchange does not negatively impede the progress of the lesson for students who have got it right, whilst reinforcing the common misconceptions to be aware of.


“Put your hand up if you got question 4 wrong *no hands go up*… question 5 wrong *4 hands go up*

OK, what did you get, Macey? *writes Macey’s response on the board*
Jo? *writes Jo’s response on the board which is different to Macey’s*
*Final two students share their responses, they are the same as Macey’s and Jo’s.*

“OK, 30 seconds, Everyone discuss: where do we think we might have gone wrong here?”

*Class discuss… cold call… feed back…*

Now this exchange would take time to build. But, bit by bit, by creating this culture of embracing error, the classroom is warmer, not colder and more celebratory, not less – we celebrate learning in all its complexity and non-linear forms. We absolutely need to be careful, and I will still use “hands up, who got it right” at times. But when this happens, when we then go to a student who got it wrong and ask them if they know why, it doesn’t feel as though they have opted into that conversation in the same way as if their hand is already in the air – the hand in the air means we’re already halfway into that conversation.

A non-Maths example – the power of the line

One of our wonderful English teachers has been considering this notion of embracing a culture of error in English. Students write short responses on their MWBs; she collects in a few, draws a line on the main whiteboard, and gets students to thrash out where ‘on the line’ (in terms of quality of response) the MWB should sit. Students then get the opportunity to revisit their original MWB responses, utilising the learning gained from this process, along with any formative feedback from the teacher. It has similarities with Show Call, which you can read more about in this piece from Darren Leslie @dnleslie here: https://hwrkmagazine.co.uk/using-show-call-in-the-classroom/

To close

If we are supporting our students through developing their understanding of how learning happens, then we also need to develop their understanding of the real complexity of this process. We’ve all seen the image of an arrow pointing diagonally upwards from left to right, and a wiggly mess of an arrow demonstrating the non-linear nature of learning and progress – we need to make this part of our discourse, not a poster on a wall. How can we normalise mistakes, develop responses to uncertainty, and embrace a culture of error? (And in so doing, build greater clarity in our teaching and strengthen self and peer reflection.)

Thank yous / Bibiliography

My blogs are often about CPD, normally full of a lot of references, so this is a bit of a departure for me. I know it has been heavily influenced by previous blogs from Adam Boxer, and very recent blogs on questioning from Claire Stoneman and Pritesh Raichura. So despite the lack of direct references, a huge thank you to each of them – links to blogs below.

Adam Boxer: Just 4 minutes of teaching – A Chemical Orthodoxy (wordpress.com)

Claire Stoneman: Explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing in lessons – Birmingham Teacher (wordpress.com)

Pritesh Raichura: Checks for Listening: 100% Participation | Bunsen Blue (wordpress.com)


Published by Nikki Sullivan

Personally, an optimist always looking for the next adventure. Professionally, a Deputy Head always looking to better life chances. @Nikki__Sullivan @BeckfootTL

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